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Looking at Connectivism as a New Learning Theory

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

What better time to explore something new than the start of a New Year. Since beginning this blog in July I have come across the concept of Connectivism several times. Despite having been around since 2005, this was not a learning theory that we covered in graduate school, but one that, at first glance, seems to lend itself nicely to considering learning in the Information Age.

 What the Heck is Connectivism?
To a very significant extent Connectivism is a rehashing of the basic principles of constructivism  and social constructivism established by Duffy and Cunningham (1996) and Lave and Wenger (2001) respectively – the basic principles of all three theories are that knowledge and learning are active, socially mediated processes that happen in authentic contexts and through interactions with real world practitioners. Connectivism incorporates the additional dimension that learning happens more rapidly in a connected, information rich world through technological mediation. The following video presents a fun example of Connectivism in practice:

The new and significant aspects of the theory of Connectivism set forth by George Siemens are the implications of the way in which the human brain is being rewired through interaction with digital technology, the concept of “knowing where,” rather than “knowing when” or "knowing how," and the need to make connections in the absence of actual experience.

Rewiring the Human Brain
This is by far the most fascinating, and, as yet, underexplored area of human learning in the Digital Age. The concept that the human brain is being rewired through exposure to digital technology is generally accepted as a fact at this point in time (Prensky, 2001). However the implications for teaching and learning of this dramatic change in the way that the human brain functions when technology is involved have as of yet been fully investigated. The implications of actual neurological changes in the human brain based on new sensory input models are far reaching and have the potential to dramatically alter our conceptions of knowing, teaching, learning, instructional design, and testing. A learning theory that accounts for these changes has the potential to open up new avenues for research and inquiry that could further the field of education in significant ways.

Knowing Where
Related to the concept of physiological changes in the human brain is the effect of ubiquitous access to information made possible through the Internet and mobile technology. Prior to the advent of the Web, "knowing" meant something completely different than it has since. It used to be that literally having the information in one’s head was necessary in order to “know” something. Now, because of access and the amazing proliferation of information, along with the rate at which it changes, it is more important to know how or where to find information rather than to know a specific piece of information. This new knowing includes search strategies as well as an ability to incorporate new information into existing knowledge structures.

Connecting Without a Connection
This ability to find information from new and diverse sources and incorporate it into previous knowledge or patterns is the truly new and innovative aspect of Connectivism that has the greatest potential for impacting education and learning. The ability to incorporate new information into existing knowledge or to synthesize new knowledge from multiple new sources of information is not a skill that really existed prior to the Information Age. Previously, most knowledge was gained through a hands-on, face-to-face interaction within the context in question. Virtual reality and the incredible connectivity of the digital world now allow access to data, simulation, and collaboration without physical proximity or a need to actually handle materials or interact in person.

Creating knowledge from these far more abstract sources of data represents a leap forward in intellectual ability that is not inherently present in human beings. Historically, we are and have been sensory-based creatures. We live in a physical world and our senses are geared to process data from the physical world we are in contact with. Processing virtual information and data is a new skill that instructional designers and educators need to consider very carefully when thinking about how to best facilitate learning in the Digital Age.

Tune in next time to learn what Connectivism looks like in practice.

 

 

Image: Boaz Yiftach / FreeDigitalPhotos.net